Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm
Jon Katz writes dog stories from the heart. His warm anecdotes of life with multiple animals at Bedlam Farm, in upstate New York, fill the reader with peace. Wrung emotionally and physically from living in the big city, Katz has bought Bedlam Farm and become a gentleman farmer. His choice brings with it new realities. Life on a working sheep farm is a far step from that of an apartment in Brooklyn. His wife Paula, a working woman in her own right, respects her husband’s move but does not embrace the radical change for herself. She keeps a home in the city and hibernates to the farm on most weekends.
The reality at Bedlam Farm is that much work needs to be done. Strong border collie stock, led by a dog named Rose, is the heart of the operation. Katz mourns the loss of his first dog-love, Orson, whose tumultuous life is chronicled in A GOOD DOG. Katz makes the best decision for the good of both the farm and the dog when Orson is put down. Orson’s memory creeps onto the pages of DOG DAYS but in no way diminishes Katz’s love for his remaining animals, of which there are many.
Katz realizes early on that the key to a successful operation is having good people in charge. Trained as a writer, not as a farmer, he sees in Annie DiLeo his strong counterpart. She’s compassionate and a balance for his pragmatism. He has the ultimate say, however, when tough decisions are required. When Katz becomes impatient, Annie communicates with the animals. Pearl and Clementine are two lovable Labs, while Rose (and soon Izzy) claims a border collie’s right to sheepherding. Elvis, a new arrival to Bedlam Farm, creates a clamor of his own. He’s a lumbering piece of flesh, a gigantic, apple-loving Brown Swiss steer. Four donkeys, a herd of sheep, a rooster, chickens and a barn cat complete the menagerie at Bedlam. Katz’s limitation is his arthritic back. He finds the feeding, care and clean-up an increasing chore, especially in winter, so Annie’s help is a daily welcome.
When Katz receives a phone call from a friend, rescue-person Amy, he’s hesitant to respond positively. Katz is drawn to rescue but realizes that it could become a preoccupation. He has helped Amy place a number of animals but has not welcomed one to Bedlam. A farm has sold; puppies need a home as does their parent, a three-year-old border collie named Izzy. Never housebroken, and raised mostly in a caged area outside, the dog’s plight tears at Katz’s sense of right. Izzy is an out-of-control hurler who thrives on human attention. His first ride in a car is home to Bedlam Farm with Katz. It’s to be a temporary solution, but Izzy becomes a permanent fixture there. He even learns from Rose to herd the sheep and becomes quite good at it. According to Katz: “I loved him very much, and he had strongly attached himself to me.”
The clever chapter titles mislead. “The Whore of Bedlam” reminds one of saloons and devious living. Katz’s whore turns out to be a lovable Labrador named Clementine. By definition, Katz conjectures that a prostitute is one who sells his or her favors. Clem, according to her owner, “will give it up --- anytime, anywhere --- for a sliver of beef jerky.” He sees her love of all people not as disloyalty to him but as the quality he loves most about her.
Katz’s half-dozen books about animals throw his audience a bone that continues to please. His self-learned expertise on the rigors and joys of owning dogs, sheep, cows, donkeys and smaller farm animals is a story told with ease. I am an avowed Katz fan at present and eagerly anticipate more tales from Bedlam Farm. DOG DAYS is a book to warm the soul when one is weary.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on June 26, 2007